A detailed look at the key players and matchups for the Chiefs-Texans game at 3:35 p.m. Saturday at NRG Stadium. The game will air on ESPN and ABC.
When the Chiefs run
EDGE >> TEXANS
The Chiefs failed to get anything of significance on the ground in the first matchup, rushing 32 times for 97 yards. You can’t blame a more conservative second-half offense for this, either — the Chiefs only averaged 2.6 yards per carry while jumping out to 27-9 halftime advantage.
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork (6 feet 2, 335 pounds) is 34 years old and doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, but he’s still a solid run defender who anchors coordinator Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 scheme (though the Texans showed plenty of 4-3 looks in the the Chiefs’ 27-20 win in the season opener). Rookie center Mitch Morse won’t start because of a concussion, so it will be interesting to see how second-year pro Zach Fulton fares in only his second career regular-season start at center.
The Chiefs, of course, must also be wary of star defensive end J.J. Watt (6-5, 289), who likes to use a devastating arm-over swim move to blow past offensive linemen and blow up plays. He had nine tackles in the season opener, four more than his season per-game average, and is difficult to run at and reach block. The Texans’ other interior lineman is end Jared Crick (6-4, 285), a try-hard guy who had three tackles and a pass deflection vs. the Chiefs in the season opener.
At the second level, the Texans are led by inside linebacker Brian Cushing (6-4, 249), an instinctive seven-year veteran who leads the Texans in tackles with 110 after knee injuries wrecked his 2012 and 2013 campaigns. He’s often flanked on the inside by second-round rookie inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who has supplanted game one starter Akeem Dent (6-1, 239). McKinney shows promise as a blitzer and run stopper and has been better than expected in coverage. Meanwhile, the Texans’ three primary edge rushers — fourth-year pro Whitney Mercilus (6-4, 258), 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 266) and three-year veteran John Simon (6-1, 252) — are all capable run defenders.
Chiefs’ top rusher
When the Chiefs pass
EDGE >> TEXANS
The Texans shut out the Chiefs in the second half of their last matchup, and while the Chiefs seemed to tamp down their aggressiveness after taking an 18-point halftime lead, Crennel also ramped up the defensive pressure. And while Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has done a nice job during this 10-game winning streak, he’s also thrown interceptions in three of the Chiefs’ last four games, and the Texans rank fifth in the NFL with 45 sacks.
In the rematch, identifying Watt must again be the Chiefs’ first priority. Watt uses his extraordinary strength, length, technique and motor to devastate opposing offenses, and the Chiefs are well aware of this. In their season opener, Watt racked up two of his 17 1/2 sacks this season. Whether Jah Reid returns from knee inflammation to man his typical right tackle spot or Donald Stephenson again gets the nod, Watt — who primarily lines up against the right tackle but may rush from anywhere, even middle linebacker — will command the Chiefs’ attention.
Mercilus has rewarded the Texans for the $26 million contract he received before the season with a 12-sack campaign, and the Jaguars simply couldn’t block him last Sunday. Mercilus could potentially be flanked this weekend by Clowney, a physically-gifted pass rusher who missed the Texans’ last game because of a foot injury but listed as day-to-day. If he can’t go, Simon — who actually has five sacks this year to Clowney’s 4 1/2 — will get the nod.
Meanwhile, the Texans’ secondary is led by cornerback Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 188), who shows good closing speed and is among the league leaders in passes defensed with 22. He’s flanked by veteran Kareem Jackson (5-10, 188), a solid cover corner and very reliable tackler, while first-round rookie corner Kevin Johnson (6-0, 188) — a competitive player with quick hips and a promising future — mixes in as the Texans’ nickel guy. This is a good trio, but the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver, Jeremy Maclin, still found room to operate in the first game, catching five passes for 52 yards — a total that doesn’t include a 39-yard gain that was not ruled a catch. The Chiefs left a few big plays to Maclin on the table in that game, especially when Joseph was covering him.
The primary safeties are former Chief Quintin Demps (5-11, 208) and second-year pro Andre Hal, a pair of athletic players with ball skills. Hal has replaced veteran Rahim Moore (6-1, 195), who started the first game against the Chiefs but was benched following a bad loss to the Miami Dolphins in October. When Demps was a Chief, he made a lot of plays in coverage but was susceptible to certain route combinations. The Chiefs ran one at him in the season opener, and Travis Kelce ended up catching a touchdown pass.
Kelce, by the way, had a big game in the season opener, catching six passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. So did Jamaal Charles, who had five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. Charles is out for the year, but it makes sense to see if the Texans’ linebackers and secondary can adequately cover Kelce and, say, Charcandrick West out of the backfield this time around. Some screens should be run, too. It will also be interesting to see if the Texans can contain Smith’s running ability again; he rushed nine times for only 15 yards in that game.
Chiefs’ top QB
Chiefs’ top WR
When the Texans run
EDGE >> CHIEFS
The Texans are committed to running the football, as they’ve rushed for 125 yards or more in six of their last seven games. Against the Jaguars on Sunday, they rushed for 160 yards in 31 carries — a solid average of 5 yards per carry. Star running back Arian Foster was lost for the season because of an Achilles tear in October. While second-year-pro Alfred Blue (6-2, 222) is a one-speed power back who has generally been inconsistent as the lead ballcarrier, he has good vision, size and feel for the position and is coming off a respectable 21-carry, 102-yard effort against the Jaguars. Backups Akeem Hunt (5-10, 190), Jonathan Grimes (5-10, 209) and Chris Polk (5-11, 222) all mix in to give the Texans a little more wiggle and/or receiving ability, depending on the situation, while muscle-bound second-year fullback Jay Prosch (6-1, 256) will also make the occasional cameo as a lead blocker. The Texans will also mix in a little wildcat here and there with quarterback-turned-receiver B.J. Daniels or Jonathan Grimes.
The Texans rushed 21 times for 98 yards against the Chiefs, a respectable 4.7 yards per carry. Center Ben Jones (6-3, 308) has been banged up all season, but he’s been a rock. He’s flanked by right guard Brandon Brooks (6-5, 335), who moves well for his size, and left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (6-4, 307), while right tackle Derek Newton (6-6, 313) is having a nice season as a run blocker.
Yet, the edge here still goes to the Chiefs, who have been good against the run for the most part this season. While the Chiefs rotate five good-to-adequate interior run defenders, the Texans’ interior run blocking actually leaves something to be desired. So as long as the Chiefs can set the edge — something they should be able to do provided Houston and Hali return — the Texans could have a hard time getting their ground game going.
Texans’ top rusher
When the Texans pass
EDGE >> CHIEFS
Statistically, quarterback Brian Hoyer (6-2, 215) has had a nice season in only 11 games. He’s a smart player with adequate arm strength who generally takes care of the football and does little things well — like drawing defensive linemen offsides. But like most quarterbacks, his accuracy wanes under pressure, and he’s prone to mistakes when the pocket collapses. In the first game against the Chiefs, he only completed 18 of 34 passes for 236 yards and was replaced in the second half by Ryan Mallett, who has since been released.
Prior to their 30-6 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, Hoyer missed the Texans’ previous two games because of a concussion. He fared well enough in his return, completing 25 of 40 passes for 249 yards, a touchdown and an interception. It’s worth noting that the concussion was Hoyer’s second of the season, so if he is forced to come out for any reason on Saturday, the Texans will likely turn to Brandon Weeden, who completed 26 of 42 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions during Hoyer’s late-season absence.
Regardless of who takes the snaps at quarterback, the Texans’ undisputed, No. 1 receiving option is DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins (6-1, 207), a three-year pro who has blossomed into a bonafide star. The Chiefs found this out in week one, when the 23-year-old used a nine-catch, 98-yard, two-touchdown effort as a springboard to his first Pro Bowl season. Barring a surprise, Hopkins — a vertical threat who caught two jump-ball touchdowns over Pro Bowl rookie Marcus Peters in the first meeting — should see the ball plenty on Saturday; he ranks third in the league with 192 targets. Veteran Nate Washington (6-1, 183) is a steady No. 2 receiver who caught six passes for 105 yards the first go-round, while third-round rookie Jaelen Strong (6-2, 217) is a big target who still needs to polish his route-running but has shed some weight and come on of late. He’s built some chemistry with Hoyer during the two-game stretch where the previous No. 3 receiver, Cecil Shorts III, has sat because of a hamstring injury. Shorts is expected back this weekend, given Hoyer another weapon. Tight ends Ryan Griffin (6-6, 254) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-5, 265) are adequate pass catchers who have caught a combined 37 passes this season.
It would not be a surprise to see the Texans lean heavily on the quick passing game, because the offensive line may struggle to hold the Chiefs’ pass rushers at bay. Houston placed starting left tackle Duane Brown on injured reserve Monday because of a quad injury he suffered in a vicious collision against the Jaguars, which is a bad break considering they must now face a defensive front that should have star edge rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali back in the fold. Chris Clark (6-5, 305) will fill Brown’s spot, and he will need to step up in a big way — he’s a better run blocker than pass blocker— especially if the Texans’ interior linemen again have a difficult time blocking the likes of end Allen Bailey and nose tackle Jaye Howard, who combined for three sacks in the first meeting between the teams. Keep an eye on Su’a-Filo, the left guard, who has struggled in pass protection this season, and Newton, the right tackle who struggled against Houston in the first game, yielding a sack that led to a fumble and a hurry that led to an interception.
Texans’ top QB
Texans’ top WR
EDGE >> CHIEFS
The kickers are fairly even. The Texans’ Nick Novak was signed in September to replace Randy Bullock, who missed an extra point in the first half in the Texans’ first game against the Chiefs. Novak has converted 86 percent of his field goals since, which is slightly higher than the percentage of Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos. Both kickers have failed to convert two extra points, but Santos has a superior touchback percentage (44.4 to 37.1). The Chiefs had the edge at punter, where Dustin Colquitt has dropped 37 punts inside the 20 while Shane Lechler has only dropped 24 in 20 more attempts. The return units are about equal, as the kick- and punt-return averages are similar. The Chiefs’ De’Anthony Thomas had a big day against the Texans as a punt returner in the season opener, averaging 16 yards on five attempts, but it remains to be seen if his replacement, Frankie Hammond can do the same against Houston. Houston has a slight edge in kick return average allowed (24.4 to 24.7), but the Chiefs have a bigger in punt return average allowed (6.5 to 10.2). The Chiefs, in the end, have the slightest of edges overall.
EDGE >> CHIEFS
Both head coaches — the Chiefs’ Andy Reid and the Texans’ Bill O’Brien — did a marvelous job keeping their teams together during miserable 2-5 starts. O’Brien — who is 18-14 in his second year as head coach — is known for working with quarterbacks, and he and offensive coordinator George Godsey have done a nice job tailoring the offense to any of the four quarterbacks they’ve had under center this year. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s defensive coordinator is former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, a respected defensive mind who has built a very strong defense this season. But the edge here still goes to the Chiefs, in large part because Andy Reid has a proven track record in the playoffs — he’s 10-10 for his career, which better than it sounds — and his staff has been together longer than O’Brien’s.
EDGE >> TEXANS
Cover your eyes Chiefs fans, here’s the part of the preview that mentions the Chiefs’ poor playoff history. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game in more than 20 years — with the last time, coincidentally, coming at Houston — and their playoff losing streak now stands at eight games. There have been some heartbreakers along the way, too, including a 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts in January 2014 in which they blew a 28-point second-half lead. The good news for the Chiefs is that history has no bearing on the present, but the Texans do have home-field advantage, and as the Colts showed the Chiefs a few years ago, that can be helpful in a pressure-packed situation like a playoff game.
Bottom line: Chiefs 24-20
One of the safest ways to predict a playoff winner is to go with the team that has the best coach and quarterback combination. With Andy Reid and Alex Smith, the Chiefs have the edge in both categories, so they get the edge on paper. But be wary of the 9-7 Texans, who have won seven of their last nine games. The defense is formidable — it’s hard to envision the Chiefs consistently blocking Watt and Mercilus — and while quarterback Brian Hoyer doesn’t scare anyone, it’s not absurd to envision him gaining some confidence and getting on a hot streak during a home playoff game. The Chiefs are the better team on paper, hence the reason they’re road favorites, but if they turn the ball over a few times and/or let Hoyer get some confidence, all bets are off.